Most food in the South is a vehicle for sauce. Sure, scrambled eggs are great, but once you’ve had them with hot sauce, naked scrambled eggs will never look as appetizing. Hot sauce is as essential to Southern tables as salt and pepper, and barbecue sauce—well, it’s complicated.
Louisiana-Style Hot Sauces
A sauce made in the Louisiana tradition uses three key ingredients: red hot peppers (like tabasco or cayenne), salt, and vinegar. Hot sauce is an ingredient, a condiment, and a remedy for recipe flops. If a soup, sauce, or sandwich is disappointingly bland or blundered, smother it in hot sauce. Voila! Instantly edible. I currently have several bottles at the ready in my kitchen: TABASCO® (duh), Louisiana Hot Sauce, and Texas Pete. Clearly, I’m not loyal to a particular brand, but I do like TABASCO® for cooking, and Louisiana Hot Sauce on my eggs (thicker, more salt).
TABASCO®: This is the original hot sauce and the reason that similar products are called Louisiana-style hot sauce, even if they’re not produced in Louisiana (Texas Pete hails from North Carolina), where TABASCO® began and is still based (Avery Island). After tabasco peppers are harvested and mashed, the mash is aged in white oak barrels for up to three years. So, TABASCO® is basically the Champagne of hot sauce.
Crystal: New Orleans natives hold this hot sauce near and dear. I don’t know if this is primarily because of the famous sign, or a solid, taste-based preference, but it is milder than TABASCO® and has a tangy flavor that makes it a less intimidating table sauce.
Barbecue Sauce Basics
The Southeast is famous for its devotion to the art, science, and religion tradition of barbecue. Regional manifestations of this style of cooking have distinct characteristics and fiercely loyal followings (people who passionately declare their local barbecue the best—and might punch you in the face if you disagree). The parts of the animal used and how the meat is smoked are some of the factors that differentiate the regional barbecue cultures, but it’s the type of sauce that most clearly identifies a particular barbecue style. If you approach a North Carolinian with a thick, tomato heavy sauce, they’ll slap that offending concoction out of your hand.
Store-Bought and DIY
The American Standard: Thick, sweet, and tomato based: The tomato and sugar (brown sugar or molasses) heavy sauce is what defines most of the commercial barbecue sauce brands. Some ‘cue snobs and purists tend to snub this type of sauce, maintaining that it overwhelms the palate and buries the subtle flavors of the meat. Well, my Crock-Pot-cooked pork shoulder certainly isn’t too good for the store-bought variety. (Hold the arguments about how this isn’t technically barbecuing. I haven’t gotten around to constructing a pit in my backyard). But, I would probably add cider vinegar, tabasco, liquid smoke, and red pepper flakes because overkill is my specialty.
While I won’t turn my nose up at a bottle of store bought sauce, I can usually find the same basic ingredients in my pantry and mix my own. Any combination of these ingredients might find themselves in something I’d qualify as barbecue sauce: cider vinegar (or regular), yellow mustard (or whatever kind I have in my fridge), tomato paste, ketchup, brown sugar, red pepper flakes, tabasco, paprika, liquid smoke, Worcestershire, root beer (and probably butter, garlic, and onions because I instinctively put those in everything). I probably wouldn’t combine all of these at once (no promises), but these are common on-hand ingredients that can produce a variety of barbecue sauce styles. In Alabama, where my kitchen is located, we’re very sauce tolerant. In fact, we’ve even found a place for mayonnaise in our diverse barbecue culture.
Regional-Specific Barbecue Sauce
Alabama White Sauce: Vinegar is the mother ingredient of all barbecue sauce and white sauce is no exception, but as a member of Team Mayo (specifically Dukes), I’m happy to say that mayonnaise is the star of this sauce. Vinegar, mayo, and black pepper make a basic white sauce; which is best enjoyed liberally applied to smoked chicken or drizzled on a pulled pork sandwich.
North Carolina Vinegar Based: This region has two popular styles. Eastern Carolina barbecue culture embraces a minimalist sauce of little more than vinegar and red pepper flakes. The tang is meant to cut through the smoke without smothering the flavor. The Lexington-style, or Piedmont, barbecue sauce goes a little further and adds a little bit of tomato paste or ketchup to thicken and sweeten (good for them).
South Carolina Mustard Based: Central South Carolina (the “Mustard Belt”) is known for it’s use of strong mustard-based sauced. At its base, mustard sauce is built upon yellow mustard, vinegar, and brown sugar, and something with a kick.
Memphis Tomato and Vinegar Sauce: Memphis is famous for dry rubs, but the sauce style that carries its name achieves a nice balance between the thick and sweet style and the tangier, thinner vinegar varieties. It’s probably what my homemade concoctions would qualify as.